Lebanese troops 'foil plot by al-Qa'ida to attack American embassy in Beirut'

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The Independent Online

It was almost too good to be true. Scarcely 24 hours after the visit of the Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, and only four days after the attacks on the Western compounds in Saudi Arabia, Lebanese troops arrest a clutch of al-Qa'ida operatives who are plotting to attack the US embassy in Beirut and kidnap members of the Lebanese Cabinet.

Even more profoundly, the prisoners are linked to at least 10 Islamists hiding in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein al-Helweh in Sidon after staging an assault on the Lebanese army in the north of the country more than three years ago.

Some talked of 39 arrests, but certainly nine men, seven Lebanese and two Palestinian, were in custody last night for "interrogation" before being handed over to the judiciary authorities in Lebanon. The Syrians – again mirabile dictu – were said to be involved in their arrest, thus proving to the Americans that Damascus is backing the "war on terror".

More seriously, there really was an al-Qa'ida uprising in Lebanon in January 2000, and the few scattered survivors – those not gunned down by Lebanese troops after they had themselves murdered several soldiers – have been held at Roumieh jail, north of Beirut, or sought sanctuary in Sidon.

Amnesty International has demanded that those in jail be humanely treated, after persistent reports of beatings and abuse in custody. One purpose of the alleged plot to attack the American embassy and kidnap Lebanese cabinet members was to seek the release of the Roumieh prisoners.

The arrests also help to buttress the Lebanese-Syrian contention that the Hizbollah guerrilla movement is a resistance organisation rather than a "terrorist" group – as America and Israel claim – but that al-Qa'ida is a threat to all nations.

Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister, is also a citizen of Saudi Arabia, scene of the latest al-Qa'ida attacks. The 10 al-Qa'ida sympathisers in Sidon – most of whom are Kurds – openly boast of their links to Osama bin Laden. One, who says he knows Bin Laden, has plastered his refugee camp home with photographs of the al-Qa'ida leader. The Lebanese authorities have been trying to negotiate with Palestinian leaders for months to have the men handed over.

The conflict in the north of Lebanon was a fierce battle in which the Lebanese army used tanks and helicopter gunships against the gunmen.

As one of the more constitutional states in the Arab world, Lebanon is bound to put the latest al-Qa'ida suspects on trial – which will allow both the Lebanese and Syrians to demonstrate yet again that they are against "terrorism". Always supposing, of course, that their prisoners keep to the script.